As Abelia stood on the platform, anticipating the vibration of the public light rail train’s arrival, she never imagined it would be the last time.
It was a Wednesday, so those without train allowances were walking to work, streaming swiftly by like the waters of a brook, most babbling into their phones. She gripped her travel mug of coffee with one hand and stuffed the other deep into her uniform overalls to avoid human contact as people jostled around her. It made no sense to change at work, especially when one might sit in something sticky on the train.
Abbie loved riding the train. She loved watching the spaces between suburbs fly by. She loved the retro look of the seats and the conductors in their little hats, scanning people’s phones for tickets. She didn’t have a smartphone, so she dug around for her paper pass in her oversized bag.
She loved riding in the opposite direction from most people. It took no time at all leaving the city in the morning compared to all those suckers riding into downtown, standing up like cattle. She rode from Tanner’s Point through Binderville past Cottage Grove and Blakewood. The woods were lovely this time of year; spring was just arriving and the trees were all buds and possibilities. It made her want to sit by a creek and watch the fish jump. The window she peered out of seemed to stand still as the trees and buildings scrambled by. The recorded voice announced Beaver Landing, the last stop, and she hopped off.
Work was another story. It was hot underground—less like being in the sun and more like being in a sauna. A smelly sauna. The overalls were stifling but mandatory, their color indicating rank and their fabric soaking up unwanted chemicals from the air. They’d been specially designed, but they didn’t work as well as their manufacturers claimed. And worst of all, being inside all day made her white, freckled skin even paler than it would naturally be. Then again, a waste reclamation plant was never going to be an attractive job.
“Start down on the end and work toward me,” Abbie called to her team over the hissing air coming out of the vents. “We should be able to finish this load before lunch. Watch out for the aluminum, you missed some yesterday.” As they dispersed, she went back to her clipboard and began looking over the day’s quotas.
“Yo,” she answered without looking up. Someone cleared his throat.
“Abelia Olivia Jayne Venenza Ribaldi Porchenzii?”
At this, she looked up slowly, her pencil still poised over the paper. Two people who looked to be related were smiling excitedly at her, then at each other. Their pale skin looked almost green under the fluorescent lights.
“Your Highness, thank the Woznick we found you! We need to speak with you.”
Abbie set her mouth in a hard line. “I’m busy.” She turned and walked back toward her office without another word.
“Your Highness,” the woman began, but Abbie spun around, holding up a quelling hand.
“I left that title behind a long time ago. Please don’t use it.”
“What should we call you, then? Light of our hearts? Gracious one? Your worship?” The woman sounded completely serious. Abbie tried not to roll her eyes.
“Just Abbie is fine,” she said, her gaze returning to her clipboard.
“That won’t do,” whispered the woman to the man. She snapped her fingers. “We’ll call you sister, then?”
“Are you in a cult? Because I have no interest in cults. Coffee is my religion.”
The man removed his hat. “Perhaps Your Highness would like to discuss this somewhere more private?”
Abbie forced herself to smile politely. Hanging up her clipboard on the wall, she badged them into the corridor of offices where things smelled a bit better and led them to hers, closing the door behind them.
“Please allow me to introduce ourselves,” said the man. “I am Rubald Jerrinson, and this is my favorite wife, Rutha.” He pronounced it “Root-ah,” a name Abbie hadn’t heard before in her 23 years. He cleared his throat nervously as she paged through the stack of papers in her inbox. “We’re on a diplomatic mission from Orangiers,” he continued, “a mission of the gravest importance.”
At this, Abbie’s eyebrows flew up. “You’ve come a long way, then.”
“I thought we’d agreed on sister, Mr. Jerrinson,” Abbie said, though they’d agreed on no such thing. She heaved a sigh. “I don’t want these people knowing who I…was.”
In truth, Gardenia’s capital city was a popular spot for erstwhile princes and princesses of all sorts, and she knew several, though none from countries as large and powerful as Brevspor. Most were perpetual philosophy majors at the university, living off trust funds. By working at the plant, she had been able to keep her identity under wraps. Until now.
“Yes, apologies, erm, sister,” Rubald said with a nervous little cough. “We’ve been sent to bring you to fulfill your contractual obligation to marry His Royal Highness, Second Son of Orangiers, Prince Edward Kenneth Keith Francis Benson Broward. We must leave as soon as possible.”
Abbie stood up and walked to the corner of her office where a mini-fridge and a coffeepot lived. She pulled out a pink toaster pastry, her go-to when-I’m-stressed-out food, and poured herself another cup of coffee. She sat back down at her desk without offering the two emissaries anything.
“That contract became void when I renounced my title and position in line to the throne,” she said through her first enormous bite of pastry. Despite her best efforts, her heartrate was starting to climb.
The couple smiled at each other knowingly, and Rutha pulled a thin stack of papers out of a satchel Abbie hadn’t noticed she was carrying. “This copy of the contract says otherwise,” the woman said. “You can read it yourself if you’d like, Your Ma—ah, sister. We’ve just highlighted the salient conditions there, under ‘bridal conditions’...your royal status isn’t one of them. Please remember that international marriage contracts are enforceable in any country on the continent or across the Sparkling Sea, so your presence in a foreign country is no obstacle. We have spoken to the leaders of Gardenia privately, and they’ve agreed to extradite you to Orangiers if necessary.”
A vise tightened in Abbie’s chest, her fear rising fast in a hot, panicky wave. “I need some time to look over this contract,” she said, her voice surprisingly even to her own ears. She stood up and walked to the door. “Would you both please come back tomorrow, say around ten, when we can discuss this further?” Her thoughts were already racing ahead of her to her best friend Lauren with her law degree, to a large glass of wine, and to the “go bag” with a stack of new identities in a train station locker she’d been renting for five years. Anything but the terrifying specter of a thousand-person church wedding and a gold circlet back on her head.
“There’s something else, sister.” Rubald paused. His pale face was grave. “It’s your father.” At this, Abbie crossed to the desk and sat back down. Rutha rose and quietly shut the door she’d left open.
“He’s written you a letter. I have it here.” She reached out and took the large manila envelope Rubald offered. Her father’s wax seal straddled the flap. She broke it quickly and removed the fine linen sheet. It was shorter than she’d expected.
You are missed more than you can imagine. Things are not going well here, and your help is needed. I am ill. The people do not wish your brother to ascend to the throne. Brevspor has been a matriarchy for sixteen generations, and the people do not accept the way things are now. They tolerated my leadership after your mother passed away, knowing that you were too young to shoulder such responsibility, but no more.
They have petitioned me to enforce your marriage contract. Under your joint leadership with Edward, they believe Brevspor would flourish, and of course, I agree. Brevspor would come under control of Orangiers as a territory with you as its steward, and they would have a Porchenzii queen they trust once more.
There is more. Other ruling powers know what a powerful alliance this would be, and are working swiftly to prevent it. You are in danger where you are. I’m sorry for this, but thought it better that you know.
Come say goodbye to me, my darling daughter, and take your rightful place...for all our sakes.
Paul Daniel Trevor Washington Frakes Porchenzii...aka Dad
All the royal training in the world wasn’t enough to keep her emotions under control. Five years of silence, broken with such news. She couldn’t stop the tears that blurred her vision, and she wiped at them with angry swipes. She reread the first line over and over: You are missed more than you can imagine.
“What kind of illness is it?” she asked quietly.
Mr. Jerrinson shrugged, his expression helpless. “I’m sorry, Highness, I don’t know.” She didn’t bother correcting him. Suddenly, another line caught her eye. She wiped the snot escaping her nose on her sleeve and asked, “What does this mean, ‘your joint leadership’? Is Edward now first in line for the throne as Second Son?”
Rubald nodded. “The First Son, Lincoln Atticus Jonathan Norris Bryant Broward, tried to seize power before his father announced his intention to step down. He’s been deemed unfit to rule and currently sits in exile in Op’ho’lonia[SC3] . He mounts an army there even now to attempt another coup—that is, until his brother marries you and gains the advantage of your territory’s forces, at which point he’ll be…”
“Irrelevant,” she finished.
There was a knock at her door, and without thinking, she called, “Come in!”
Two low-level employees stood in the doorway, eyes wide. “Um, we had a question about the sewage temperature as regards to the feasibility of reclaiming mercury…” one started, but trailed off when he took in Abbie’s tear-stained cheeks.
“We’ll come back,” the other said, and the door shut once more.
Abbie wiped her face again, the tears still refusing to stop. Rutha offered her a handkerchief, which she gratefully took.
“Damn it,” she whispered. “Damn it all to Jersey.”
“Majesty,” Rutha said quietly, “regarding the danger your father spoke of, we believe you should plan to leave here as soon as possible.”
“No,” she replied, blowing her nose. She stared them down through reddened eyes that matched her hair. “You may leave now.”
Twin expressions of shock appeared on the couple’s faces, but Rubald found his voice first. “Majesty, we both feel—”
Abbie rose to her feet and slammed her palms down on the desk, scattering papers and the pastry wrapper to the floor. “I do not care what you feel, what you think, or what you want,” she enunciated slowly and clearly. “I have left that life behind permanently. I will never return to a royal life. You are welcome to try to extradite me if you dare.”
“Oh my,” Rutha muttered, and Rubald just shook his head. They stared at her, Rubald’s face turning a mottled red, but didn’t move until she cleared her throat.
“Let me be more clear. Get. out.”